Monday, March 24, 2008

The Deaths of Robert Preston and Dean Paul Martin

Did you know that last week marked the twenty-first anniversary of the death of not one but two celebrities of whom I was quite fond in the 1980s? On March 21, 1987, both Robert Preston and Dean Paul Martin died.

Most people my age know Preston from his role as Centauri in 1984's The Last Starfighter. I think I saw that film at least twice at the theatres that year and endlessly thereafter on premium cable. If you haven't heard of that film, you were not an adolescent boy in the 1980s. It is the story of a young man who, by scoring very, very well on a video game (called The Last Starfighter, of course), catches the eye of a extraterrestrial military recruiter, played by Preston. Preston, essentially, plays himself. He is much more famous for his role as Prof. Harold Hill in the stage and film adaptation of The Music Man. Born in 1918, he died of lung cancer in his late 60s. I actually remember hearing the news of his death. So often, when you are young, celebrity deaths are meaningless to you, because you don't know the work of the celebrities who are old enough to be passing away. (I suppose this is why the death of George Reeves so affected the youth of American back in the late 1950s.). But I knew Preston from both films I mentioned above, both of which my family had taped off of television and watched often.

Martin was the son of the famous singer, Dean Martin, and he was only a few years older than I am now when he died. He had a brief musical career, but I knew him for something far different: he was the lead in the 1980s television show, The Misfits of Science. Martin was the affable, slightly goofy ringleader of the self-described Misfits, a group composed of people each with his or her own paranormal power. Think of it as a campy precursor to Tim Kring's Heroes. To modern television viewers, that program is the answer to the trivia question, "What was Courteney Cox's first television show?" They reran the show on the Sci Fi Network sometime in the mid to late 1990s, and I was embarrassed to have ever been fond of it. It featured Max Wright, for goodness sake. But back in the mid-1980s, when it aired, I loved it. I have a vivid memory of leaving school one day and being excited that it was to air that night. Yikes.

Martin, who was in the National Guard, died in a plane crash. He was married to the very beautiful Oliva Hussey, who you will know as the lovely young girl who played Juliet in the 1968 cinematic version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. You probably watched a tape of this in your high school English class and were disappointed (maybe) when the teacher had to fast forward through the brief nude scenes.

From what I have read, Dean Martin never recovered from his son's tragic death. I don't remember hearing of his untimely passing until a number of years later, during the early days of the Internet when I did a pre-Google search engine search on the fateful television series.

Resquiat in Pace.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Living with the Dead #1, #2, and #3 (Dark Horse Comics)

"Hold on . . . you're surrounded by about a zillion blood-sucking, brain-eating, friggin' walking-dead zombies and you don't like to be around guns?" - Betty Davis, to Whip and Straw, fellow survivors in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, in Living with the Dead #2 (Dark Horse Comics, Issue Date: November 2007).

Published by Dark Horse Comics, the series is written by Mike Richardson, with art by Ben Stenbeck, letters by Clem Robins, cover art by Richard Corben, cover color by Dave Stewart, design by Kristal Hennes, and edited by Scott Allie, the three issue Living with the Dead limited series is yet another attempt by an indie comic publisher to milk the zombie genre. So often has this well been revisited that its novelty not only wanes, but congeals. In perpetrating this narrative, writer Richardson tells the tale of Whip and Straw, two lunkheads whose prospects in life were no doubt elevated by the end of the world. In their post-apocalyptic metropolis, they visit the local mall and take to their city rooftop to perform as Bucktoof, the last remaining band in the city. (Interestingly, Whip and Straw's names are not provided at all in the first issue of the series, a careless omission indeed in the grand scheme of things.).

In a city infested with zombies, Whip and Straw have learned to assimilate. When venturing out into the city by day, they wear makeshift hockey masks and act as if they too are undead. This tactic fools the teeming masses of walked dead, and the creators of the series have attempted to capitalize on this plot point by including a "zombie survival kit" with each of the three issues of the series. The kit, which is a paper hockey mask one can cut from the centerfold of the comic, is accompanied by a legal disclaimer on its use:
Warning: Dark Horse Comics takes no responsibility, and makes no guarantee that this mask will save you from an attack of the living dead. Furthermore, wearing a mask does not guarantee safe passage through zombie-infested areas. Please refer to the actions a to the actions taken by the characters in this book, and practice moaning the words "Brain and "Flesh" in public areas. Dark Horse Comics takes no responsibility for the looks you will receive for utilizing your Living Dead Disguise.
How clever.

The issue that is to come between these two best friends is not unfamiliar. In establishing this conflict, Richardson recycles a plot not from comics but from sitcoms: Whip and Straw begin to stab each other in the back over issues large and small upon the appearance of Betty Davis, a woman they both come to admire. She is a tattooed hipster and the last remaining female in the city, leading to the tagline of the series: "Two boys, a girl, and seven billion living dead!" Davis is feisty and a bit self absorbed, but she captivates the two male would-be heroes, who rescue her from the mall in which they find her and then attempt to woo her. The two risk their friendship - and each other's lives - just to be in the same room with her. Ultimately, though, upon finally realizing they she is a threat to their cozy existence, they toss her from the rooftop into a pack of zombies, thereby resolving the issue of the day.

The aforementioned comparison to a sitcom is apt not just with respect to the tone of the series, but also its scope. This is not an epic tale of survival, as is The Walking Dead, the fine series by the famed Robert Kirkman. Of course, this series does not aspire to be a such, but its tired premise and overly familiar romantic sub plot are derivative of prior narratives which themselves were derivative of what came before them, as well. The question: To invest the time, energy, and effort required of a three issue comic series these days, why refrain from an attempt at something fearless and inventive? Dark Horse Comics provides no answer to that question.